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Iran threat, peace process key in Saudi-US summit

International desk |
Update: 2010-06-26 17:48:42

RIYADH - Saudi doubts over US-driven sanctions on Iran, the flagging Middle East peace process and Afghanistan will be the focus of King Abdullah`s talks at the White House this week, analysts say.

Tuesday`s meeting between President Barack Obama and the 86-year-old sovereign of the Middle East oil giant, their third, comes after the sacking of the US commander in Afghanistan and with Iran still defiant over its controversial nuclear programme.

Obama is expected to urge Saudi patience on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and seek its help in shoring up support in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the fight against the Taliban.

The two sides could also agree arms deals to build Riyadh`s defensive capabilities against Iran`s threat, including a long-pending request for as many as 72 F-15 Eagle tactical fighters, according to defence industry sources.

There are no gaping strategic differences between the close allies, said Saudi expert Thomas Lippman at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Abdullah and Obama`s initial meeting in Riyadh on June 3, 2009, and Obama`s landmark address to the Arab world in Cairo the next day did much to bridge the chasm dug by previous president George W. Bush`s administration.

The two coordinate closely on fighting Al-Qaeda and other threats, Lippman said.
"There`s no breach to be repaired like before."

But even as they endorse Washington`s lead on key regional problems, the Saudis have doubts about its approach, especially in Iran and Afghanistan.

They also worry that Obama`s commitment to a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, a centrepiece of his Cairo address, has flagged against Israeli resistance.

"My sense is that the Saudis are unhappy about a couple of things, but they don`t know what they should do or we should do about it," Lippman said. "For King Abdullah, it is the question of the peace process."

Mustafa Alani, director of Security and Defence Studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said: "There is deep disappointment in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in President Obama`s ability to deliver."

On Iran, Alani said "the Saudis believe strongly that economic sanctions will have no effect. But they have no answer" on an alternative.

"The Saudis are going to want to feel like there is an actual American plan, that gives them confidence that the US is an enduring power in the Gulf," said Jon Alterman, the Middle East Programme head at Washington`s Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Gulf allies "want a voice" in US policy making, even if they might lack ideas about how to stem Iran`s nuclear ambitions, he said.

Normally reticent to air policy differences in public, in February after meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal criticised sanctions against Iran as taking too long.

"We see the issue in the shorter term because we are closer to the threat ... We need an immediate resolution," he said.

Saud did not spell out what Riyadh wants, but the Saudis have long linked achieving a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal to alleviating other regional tensions, including the perceived threat from arch-rival Iran.

In May, Saud`s brother, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal argued that a Middle East nuclear-free zone, including currently nuclear-armed Israel, was a realistic approach.

He said creating a nuclear-free zone would require equal treatment for all nuclear states, a "universal nuclear security umbrella" for the region, and "a good military option" against any country which does not cooperate.

He blasted Clinton for downplaying the idea after it was endorsed by the UN Security Council`s five permanent members, including the United States.

Turki, whose comments are believed to reflect high-level Saudi thinking, also called US policy in Afghanistan "inept."

"What Afghanistan needs now is a shift from nation-building to effectively countering terrorists," he said. Obama "should not be misdirected into believing that he can fix Afghanistan`s ills by military means."

BDST: 1337 HRS, June 27, 2010

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